Flickering Dystopian Shadows
Duty and Desire in "1984" and "Brave New World"
One of the subscriber features here at Close Reads HQ is Heidi White’s monthly column in which she explores a theme that is near and dear to her heart (as longtime listeners of the show might know): the way duty and desire show up in literature. Each month she will be writing about how that idea is revealed in the work we are discussing on the podcast. If you would like to check out the first edition of this column, please click here. Here is the second edition:
The twentieth century was the bloodiest hundred years in the history of the world.
Along with two world wars and a myriad of grisly ethnic and ideological conflicts, totalitarian regimes established national and global reigns of terror, resulting in unprecedented human casualties. Tens of millions of soldiers perished fighting over inches of blood-stained ground. Just as many civilians were starved, tortured, gassed, bombed, or worked to death by the chillingly efficient technologies of death honed by the century’s power-mongers. But this is not the whole story. In response to the violence and terror, voices of resistance emerged. Dissidents, humanitarians, authors, statesmen, and citizens took action against the encroaching darkness.
One such action was the development of a previously sparse literary genre: dystopian fiction, which portrays negative socio-political structures through the eyes of characters who wrestle with the psychological and sociological effects of civic disorder. Significant works of twentieth-century dystopian fiction provided a normative understanding of the impact of oppressive regimes behind which the reeling world could rally, exposing the moral decay, psychological trauma, and political corruption of authoritarian governments. In democratic western nations, these books fostered widespread rejection of totalitarianism. Important dystopias began to gain traction in the mid to late twentieth century. George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are two of the most enduring.
Although both novels depict equally dehumanizing national oppression, they present opposing totalitarian visions corresponding to the duty/desire dichotomy that this column explores. In 1984, Big Brother demoralizes Oceania’s citizenry through brutally coercive tactics that distort duty and suppress desire. Meanwhile, the World State in Brave New World institutionalizes pleasure, thus controlling the populace through desire and marginalizing duty altogether. Predictably, the people in both societies sink into truncated half-lives, easily dominated by the bureaucratic state. Both novels weave tantalizing threads of duty and desire to awaken central characters to a fuller life, but in both instances centralized domination ultimately triumphs.
Written only two decades apart, the similarities between the two novels are compelling. Both narratives posit omniscient, omnipotent governments—Big Brother and the World State — that present themselves to their citizens as idealized, benevolent utopias but function as terrifying anti-topias, controlling all aspects of individual and communal life. Both suppress all expressions of individual personhood, interpersonal attachment, and moral virtue. Each government demands total submission to existing power structures, and each rewards capitulation and punishes deviance. Both Big Brother and the World State utilize rigid social and vocational class systems to sort citizens into homogenous groups that self-identify as more worthy than others, and both monitor the populace using surveillance technology.
Most importantly for this column, both regimes intentionally exploit the duty/desire dichotomy as a means of mass control. With diabolical precision, Big Brother and the World State intentionally traumatize and engineer citizens into denying a fundamental aspect of their humanity. The result is the wholesale dehumanization of the population.
Although both tyrannical governments weaponize the duty/desire dichotomy against their people, they do so from opposing angles of coercion. Big Brother isolates and exploits the people’s sense of duty. The Party uses propaganda, linguistic control, and public rituals (i.e. “the two minutes of hate”) to hijack the citizens’ innate desire to do good. At the same time, they train the people to sublimate all desires to an all-encompassing duty to the state. The only love permitted by the Party is the love of Big Brother. Desire is so repressed in Oceania that when Winston first meets Julia, he does not even recognize his visceral reaction as sexual attraction. “He had disliked her from the very moment of seeing her . . . he disliked nearly all women, especially the young and pretty ones.” That night he dreams about raping and murdering her, subconsciously redirecting attraction into violence, evidence of his ambivalence toward desire itself. Even when they consummate their relationship, it is not merely because they desire each other. “In the old days, he thought, a man looked at a girl’s body and saw it was desirable, and that was that. But you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays.” Rather, he interprets their sexual encounter as a reclamation of political duty. “Their embrace had been a battle; the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.”
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